Sara Chiarotto O’Brien and Emily Sakaguchi
If you ask North Toronto students about their earliest experiences with racism, they won’t tell you about the time they were seven and someone hurled a slur at them across the playground, they’ll tell you about the time they were four and hated the way they looked in the mirror’s reflection.
When Nathalie Funes Serna was a young girl growing up in Mexico, the word prieto was thrown around to insult those with darker skin. Even in primary school, she knew enough to colour her dark hair blonde in crayola portraits and to idolize those who were lighter, blonder, whiter.
Growing up with Asian friends, Anisa Williams realized just as fast that, according to their beauty standards, her blackness was not something to be desired. “While they’re talking about ‘oh I wish I looked like this,’ or ‘oh this is kind of ugly,’ you’re aware of the fact that that’s what you look like, because you’re different races”.
Deena Shirkool is certain of her ethnicity, but unclear what her race even is, and “[doesn’t] have a place for” her culture. “Most censuses say I am white,” Shirkool explains. “And yet, my skin, my language, and my culture all argue the opposite. My ‘race’ doesn’t exist in pop culture. Either I am ‘white’ or a ‘terrorist,’ so why would I accept either as my identity?”
Sean Lee feels that he fits into Asian stereotypes “that people have been fighting against for a long time,” but that this has been a source of personal struggle. “I’ve tried to deny it so hard, and say I’m not just this guy that sits in the corner and doesn’t do anything, and just studies really really insanely hard, and is super unathletic,” says Lee. Describing his insecurities related to fitting a stereotype, Lee states, “I guess I’m not as unique as I want myself to be.”
“She knew enough to colour her dark hair blonde in crayola portraits and to idolize those who were lighter, blonder, whiter.”
Racism might be an easy problem to solve if it stopped with the reflection in the mirror. As we’ve seen in the recent turmoil across the United States and Canada, however, racism is about much more than just mean words and the colour of a person’s skin.
We are fed images of what it means to be Black or Latino or East Asian, thuggish or alien or smart. With a certain level of education, these stereotypes can be understood and eventually left behind in history’s trash can. But racism has systemic roots that extend far beyond obvious stereotypes. It can be challenging for many of us to see the subtle injustices dismissed as anomalies, coincidence, or individual actions.
But, for the less privileged, structural manifestations of racism are impossible to ignore. The percentage of Black people in Canadian prisons is triple the percentage of Black people in Canada as a whole. One third of Canada’s inmates are indigenous, despite making up only 5% of the population, according to Dr. Ivan Zinger, the Correctional Investigator of Canada.
Similar disparities exist in education. Between 2006 and 2011, the TDSB reported that 69% of Black students successfully graduated highschool, compared to 84% of white students and 87% of other racialized students. Understanding how and why racism exists can be daunting, but some of the answers can be found close to home, within the halls of NT.
Between 2006 and 2011, the TDSB reported that 69% of Black students successfully graduated high school, compared to 84% of white students and 87% of other racialized students.
It’s no secret that North Toronto is relatively lacking in racial diversity. The 2017 student census showed that 71% of students were born in Canada, with 56% identifying as White, 21% as Asian, 2% as Black, and less than 1% as First Nations. NT’s “bubble” grows even smaller when considering socioeconomic status. 80% of parents hold jobs in semi professional or middle management positions or higher. Needless to say, these numbers do not reflect the population of Toronto as a whole, where 48% of citizens are White, 29% are Asian, and 9% are Black, and the average household income is less than $80 000 per year.
These demographics are not the result of conscious racism, but illustrate the ways that a schooling system in which real estate and location often determine a child’s district serves to further compound barriers for people of colour and low income individuals. Fifth year student and member of the NT Foundation, Joshua Chong, notes that NT accepts many of its non-White, non-Asian students through its optional attendance program, where out-of-district students can apply to NT through a lottery system. North Toronto is a popular choice for students who want to leave their home schools in search of a “better” public education. Recently, North Toronto has reduced the number of students allowed in via optional attendance due to over enrolment.
When Grade 11 student Sean Lee’s parents were choosing a place to live after immigrating to Canada, they “worked an insane amount to get to a position where [he] would be able to go to school in this kind of neighbourhood.” The students who leave their home schools are granted access to a school community with an affluent and engaged parent-body, while their home schools lose some of their district’s brightest and most ambitious student leaders and the per-student funding allocations that leave with them. “It’s kind of like a cycle,” says Chong. “If you hit the jackpot and you’re lucky, you’re kind of set up for success in your future.”
“It was difficult to recall specific incidents of racism because they happen every day.”
Even access to a good school cannot insulate students of colour from the everyday influences of racism. Though 87% of NT students reported feeling safe in and around NT in the 2017 student census and none of the students interviewed by Graffiti reported experiencing any personal attacks due to their race, they also overwhelmingly told us that it was difficult to recall specific incidents of racism because they happen every day.
Among the more common forms of racism are the jokes. We’ve all heard them by now: a casual toss of the N word, the overt expectation that Asian students be at the top of every math class, an argument that ends in a dismissive slur or insult. Every single student we interviewed hears them. Many even laugh along. Anisa Williams describes it as a “secret allowance” for racist humour, a way to brush aside insidious undertones in a punchline that isn’t even funny. Those who point this out, in her experience, are dismissed as “snowflakes” or told, “you wouldn’t get it.” Sara Abboud, in Grade 11, notes that she has seen students at NT asking for “an n-word pass.” When asked why he is reluctant to call his friends out on Asian stereotypes and insulting jokes, incoming JVP Gordon Wang’s answer was telling: “I actually have no idea.”
Many students reported similar feelings of helplessness in speaking out against racist jokes. Kembo Kibato, an NT grad and varsity soccer player, told us that there were many times at NT when his teammates and friends would say things that “really upset [him],” only to brush them off with the justification that “no one was trying to be abusive.” He admits, though, that had there been “something in place for [him] to come out [about racist incidents],” he may have been more comfortable speaking out. Other students too, brought up the idea that having a reporting system or explicit protocol for how they could disclose incidents of racism to NT’s guidance or admin department would make them more comfortable speaking out in public. Most students did not know if the school even has a specific policy or method of handling racism beyond a simple ‘slap on the wrist’ from a teacher who may or may not choose to intervene.
Along with uncomfortable jokes, Williams has experienced microaggressions at NT, including other students requesting to pet her hair “as if it’s super different or weird,” and has observed that students tend to form cliques based on race. She says, “socially, we have groups that we just label by race and it’s easy to categorize them because they all look the same, because they group together for that reason. A lot of people are very comfortable in labelling each other by race and group before we get to know each others’ names.”
Locker rooms and other places outside teacher earshot were the most common places students recounted stories of racism, but the “otherness” of being a person of colour at NT reveals itself in the classroom, too.
Chi Kibato, a Grade 11 student, recalls sitting in class one day when the subject of black women’s hair came up. “Everyone just looked at me,” she said. “I was the only person in class who had thicker hair. That really freaked me out.” Kibato insists she “love[s]” her time at NT, but notes that it is “not a place where [she finds] community or representation.”
The issue of representation came up many times in our conversations with students, particularly in relation to school curriculum surrounding the history of Black and Indigenous people in Canada. The Ministry of Education’s efforts to educate students about residential schools and the decision to play the land acknowledgement at the start of each school day was called “a joke” by more than one student. “It’s pretty performative,” says Williams of the land acknowledgement. “No one [listens] to it.” She adds that lessons about dicsrimination against Indigenous people, such as during residential schools and the sixties scoop, are taught in a way that “makes it seem like a problem that was fixed.” Her knowledge of life for Canada’s living Indigenous peoples was restricted to what she learned in history class. “I knew [Indigenous people] existed but they didn’t really seem real.”
Chong agrees with this perception of Indigenous education in public schools. “We need to show another aspect of indigenous culture as well, how it’s still alive and vibrant in our own communities today.”
These students’ wishes mirror the recommendations put forth by Canada’s truth and reconciliation committee, which call upon the governments that fund denominational schools to provide an education on “Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and practices developed in collaboration with Aboriginal Elders,” and on “Aboriginal peoples’ historical and contemporary contributions to Canada,” among other demands. On paper, most of these recommendations are being met in some capacity, but there is no doubt in students’ minds that our educational system is not living up to its potential.
Grade 12 student, Chelsea Brooks, took part in an exchange to an Indigenous community in Kenora, Ontario in Grade 10. There, Brooks had the opportunity to stay in a local family’s home and visit a reserve where the group was taught about traditional hunting and fishing practices. The entire experience was “super eye opening” and helped her understand Indigenous culture in a modern context. She also feels that, in order for students to understand and work to solve challenges facing disadvantaged groups, people need to interact more with people from different backgrounds.
Unfortunately, in 2017 the TDSB stopped allowing students to participate in homestays and the YMCA was no longer able to find a willing partner school for North Toronto Students, according to former coordinator Ms. Wolfe. The TDSB’s decision may have sent a message of “distrust” to host families and partner communities, says Wolfe. Additionally she notes that when students stay at hotels as opposed to the homes of local families, “the connections developed are not as full and rich.” She hopes that the exchange program will resume at North Toronto at some point in the future to continue “building bridges between communities and people across Canada.”
“Our educational system is not living up to its potential.”
Taking a holistic approach to the way we teach about race also helps children of colour understand themselves better. During their time at Rawlinson Community School, Chi and Kembo Kibato participated in month-long Black History Month celebrations, learning not just about slavery, but also about the food, music, and cultures of various black populations around the world. To them, being Black is a source of pride as much as it is a source of struggle. Speaking with pride about his Angolan heritage and family trips to the country, Kembo tells us that “there are so many white people who won’t experience the same things that African folks experience even if you go back home to Europe or something like that, because you know that culture is so different from some white cultures.” Although being a Black man brings challenges, it is an integral part of his identity and he “can’t imagine being any other way.”
“Being Black is a source of pride as much as it is a source of struggle. “
In order to properly educate students on racial issues, we must also educate our teachers, and ensure they have a well rounded understanding of racial histories and the right tools to pass that knowledge on to their students. Chong recalls learning about residential schools in Grade 10 history and feeling that the teaching style was “restrictive”, with the teacher relying mostly on videos and textbook pages to teach about one of Canada’s darkest historical periods. Grade 12 student Ireland Mechior notes that her Grade 9 and 10 history classes were the first occasions she and her friends learned of historical events such as residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. “We were like, ‘what? That happened?’” She agrees with Chong that “teachers [seemed to] feel uncomfortable leading” class discussions about race, and adds that “conversation is what drives forward change.”
Ms. Wolfe, a history teacher at NT, says that in recent years, the school’s history department has “worked hard to embed an exploration of oppression into the grade 10 history course.” She cites the use of the book series, Righting the Wrongs, which explores events such as Japanese Internment Camps, Residential Schools, and the Destruction of Africville. In the English department, a course that replaced standard texts with texts by Indigenous authors was scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year, with multiple teachers signing up for their own primer course in order to be able to run the class. It was delayed to the following year, however, due to low enrolment and the interruption of teacher training because of COVID-19.
While Wolfe believes that “teachers are becoming more competent with every year,” she is also clear that more work needs to be done to ensure that issues of oppression in Canadian history and throughout the curriculum are presented as problems so that students become uncomfortable with systemic inequalities. She also believes we must all learn to understand “our own complicity within systems of privilege that continue to exist in our schools.”
If racism hasn’t led to violence or blatant discrimination within NT, why should we waste precious time trying to solve a problem that isn’t even that bad? It comes down to opportunity.
“My Dad was always saying to me when I was growing up,” says Kembo Kibato, “I [had to] do two times, three times, four times what everyone else was doing just to show that I really [was] better.” The knowledge of how the world sees young Black men is never far from his mind, affecting the way he walks, dresses, and speaks when he leaves his home. Even with these added precautions, he’s still seen opportunities slip away in the cloud of other peoples’ prejudice.
First, there was the time in middle school when a guidance counsellor advised him not to bother applying for optional attendance to North Toronto because of the low chance of acceptance, nevermind the fact that she had encouraged her own nephew to apply that same year.
Then, there was the time when he was fundraising with his teammates on the North Toronto Nitros, offering to rake leaves for homeowners near Eglinton park in exchange for donations to help them travel to a soccer tournament. They’d split off into two groups, one with four Black kids and one Filippino kid, the other with a few of his white teammates. He remembers knocking on the door of one house, smiles plastered on and ready to give their neighborly spiel, when the homeowner saw them through the glass door and shooed them away, waving his hand from inside the house. “It’s just another house that doesn’t want raking,” he thought. Not ten minutes later, he looked over to see his white teammates raking the man’s front yard. Someone made a joke about how it was a bad idea to put all the Black guys in one group and, in the manner familiar to all North Toronto students, they laughed it off.
“We didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t based on how we presented ourselves. We didn’t even get a chance to talk to the guy.” It is this casual dismissal, the denial of opportunity that Kibato experiences every day. He often wonders what other opportunities he has been denied because of the colour of his skin.
Where do we go from here? Many tout “raising awareness” as a solution. Certainly, education and understanding is an essential first step, but stopping there and patting ourselves on the back for being “not racist” will not affect meaningful change. “We know about awareness. We know about systematic racism,” says Grade 12 student Sophie Cohen. Social media is a tool we have used en masse to petition, donate, protest, and educate one another. Social media, however, allows us to be comfortable.
Williams has observed that “a lot of people just did Blackout Tuesday and left, and all this performance doesn’t do anything.” Cohen further states that social media activism risks devaluing social movements; “it turns it into a trend. It’s trendy to post poems on your story about racism. But how does that actually help people?” Striking a balance between the performance of social correctness and real activism is difficult. While we shouldn’t dismiss or ridicule efforts like these, it is necessary to constantly look inwards and check in with ourselves to ask how our actions are helping or harming, at the end of the day.
Racism often lurks where we least expect it. Who makes us suspicious when we pass them on the street? Who would we pick as the smartest out of a lineup? What kind of job might we guess someone does? Our answers to questions like these show how racial bias exists in all of us, whether we want it to or not.
“The biggest mistake many of us make is to believe that racism would be solved if people could just treat each other with kindness and respect.”
Here at North Toronto, the biggest mistake many of us make is to believe that racism would be solved if people could just treat each other with kindness and respect.
The uncomfortable truth is we can be as kind and open-minded as we like, but that alone will not change the fact that our society is set up in such a way that people born with light skin are granted invisible benefits at birth, while others are born with the inherent disadvantage that comes with being a person of colour in a system designed by White people for White people.
For those of us who are White, the concept of White privilege can be difficult to understand. Activist and scholar Peggy McIntosh put it well when she described White Privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.” Whether White people want this advantage or not, it is theirs, and the first step in undoing systems of racism lies in acknowledging that for those of us who have this invisible buffer, neutrality only makes the problem worse.
Looking close to home, it is undeniable that many of us make decisions every day that, while not intentionally or overtly racist, help perpetuate the interconnected systems of wealth and racial inequality. When we pay to take easier credits outside of school, or invest money in expensive tutors, it gives us the much desired edge in academics and access to higher education that so many marginalized students do not have. Is your high average a reflection of your intellect alone, or do financial stability, a peaceful neighbourhood, and parental support play a role as well?
By examining the ways each of us benefits and suffers from racism, we can understand why it persists and move toward a world where the colour of a person’s skin is not a death sentence, a barrier, or a point of ridicule.
This transition is not likely to be a comfortable one. Understanding is the first step, but that action that follows will require disrupting systems that have existed since the founding of Canada: our schools, our legal system, our government. History has shown us that moderate support and the progression of public opinion has done little to reduce the disproportionate violence inflicted on Black Communities by law enforcement, access to clean water for Indigenous communities, and other manifestations of racism that continue to be all too common even while the majority of Canadians consider themselves “not racist”.
There is still hope, however. Brooks believes the global protests against racism and police brutality are “opening a lot of peoples’ eyes.” Most students we spoke to are hopeful that the anti-racist momentum sparked on social media will carry forward into real action in policy and in the decisions individuals make in their daily lives.
The story of racism and activism that we see in the world around us was written by our parents, our grandparents, and their grandparents before them. Its plot has evolved with time, but the themes remain unchanged. Where we go next will depend on our decisions as the writers of our generation’s chapter.